Guest Blogger: Ira Livingston, Chair of Humanities and Media Studies, Pratt Institute
Michael Berube’s \”What\’s The Matter With Cultural Studies?\”– subtitled “the popular discipline has lost its bearings” (in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/14)– is a familiar version of what my friend George Cunningham calls a “ritual lament.” Berube’s is so familiar– especially in my own demographic of just-beyond-middle-aged men– that it actually interests me: what makes this stultifying rhetorical stance so enduring?
The main content of Berube’s lament seems to be that cultural studies has not delivered on much of its activist political ambitions, and that it has failed to convince a still mostly vanguardist left that people are not simply dupes of mass media and in need of demystification. This is reasonable enough, though it seems to rely on reductive notions of what counts as the left, as activism, and as politics, but let’s let that pass for the moment. More of the story begins to emerge when you attend to the structure of feeling that shapes the lament.
Cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall is Berube’s primary foil in the essay—the one alongside whom all others fail to measure up– but Berube also cites approvingly the hard-hitting early work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson; the unflinchingly reflexive work on academic labor by Marc Bosquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams; and the work of cultural-studies emissaries into other disciplines; Berube mentions Mike Davis and Edward Soja in urban studies.
Notice anything about the scholars in this list? Yep, they’re all men. Journalist Ellen Willis is the only woman who gets a look in, presumably because her work can be considered real-world writing about hard-core politics (and not namby-pamby theorizing).
The rest of Berube’s essay follows suit. He complains that Hall’s work on “race, ethnicity and diaspora is routinely and reverently cited” while his work on Thatcherism– in other words, his “real” political work (presumably as opposed to merely cultural politics)– “is thoroughly ignored.” He regrets the common equation of cultural studies with scholarship on popular culture, that typically feminized realm of the shallow and sensational (at least since the 18th century, when male poets and others started railing about the success of female novelists). And he laments that cultural studies has had more impact in English departments– the realm of the warm-and-fuzzy– and less in sociology, one of the “harder” disciplines. Alas, a once swaggering and virile field is forced to come to terms with its own relative impotence.
It becomes even clearer when Berube says he wants “to throw some cold water on the intellectual . . . history of cultural studies in America,” but he acknowledges that the headiest predictions for cultural studies as an institutional force have long seemed overly optimistic. In light of the ongoing struggles of young cultural-studies scholars to break into the deeply conservative and discipline-bound terrain of universities, it just doesn’t seem like triumphalism is the main problem. So what’s going on here?
Berube’s phrase “throw some cold water” is telling. It signifies the notoriously libido-dampening effect of which Berube symbolically complains on behalf of cultural studies– a displaced lament for a loss of sexual drive and potency. But why throw cold water on the rest of us? Just because misery loves company?
The message with which Berube ends is that the whole field should not be condemned, only that it could “do a better job.” This is a gesture only a patriarch could mean as a show of generosity.
There is something disingenuous about the ritual lament: if you really want to inspire people to do a better job, to light a fire under them, then the last thing you should do is to throw cold water. So if he doesn’t really mean to exhort, what does the lamenter want? I’ll get to this in a minute. Meanwhile, it seems that Berube’s lament is part of the classically melancholic formation of masculinity, in which the stance of more-or-less heroic and stoic failure is enshrined as one of the leading character types, one of the approved ways of being a man. It helps to have an attributive style in which, for example, rather than acknowledging that your own historical conjuncture may have passed, you simply accuse everyone else of missing the boat. The more melodramatic version of this stance is that classic role, the disregarded prophet. I’m sure some people must find this level of self-ignorance and disavowed neediness poignant.
If it weren’t so familiar, the irony would be positively surreal: a senior professor at a major research university complaining in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that most mainstream and legitimist of academic venues, that cultural studies has not lived up to its radical potential?!
But finally it is the emotional demand made by the lament that trumps whatever content it may carry, and I come to understand this more fully when I try to imagine myself as Berube’s ideal reader; that is, when I think what of kind of response Berube’s ritual lamentation dreams of eliciting:
Daddy, you poor thing! You’ve done so much for us, and we’ve never loved you enough! You tried to deliver us, but we fell back into worshipping the golden calf! But now we see the error of our ways! We love you daddy! And we promise promise promise to do a better job.
But meanwhile, can you please, PLEASE stop whimpering?